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Child-Rearing Wisdom from the Past

January 27, 2011

Lucretia Mott, a Quaker and a pacifist, worked actively before and after the American Civil War for human rights, women’s rights, and the right not to be a slave.  She also believed that punishment served no useful purpose, including punishment of children.  When in 1839 it was suggested that the principle of non-resistance be applied to family life, some objected that “some physical restraint might be necessary for infants incapable of reason.”  Lucretia responded:

My conviction is that penalty is ineffectual, and that there is a readier and better way of securing a willing obedience than by resorting to it….  One of our little girls when told to go to bed felt disinclined to obey, and some time after she was discovered hid under the table, thinking it a good piece of fun.  No notice was taken of it, and she took her own time.  We had forgotten the affair, when she came running downstairs with her little bare feet, saying “do mother forgive me!”

Lucretia’s attitude on punishment is refreshing enough, but even more uplifting is the astuteness with which she saw through faulty arguments.  When another “suggested that in some cases punishment might be necessary,” Lucretia said,

The extreme cases which may be brought to demand corporal punishment are like the extreme cases brought to nullify so many other arguments.  The reason why such extreme cases occur is, I believe, because parents are not prepared.  They overlook the fact that a child, like all human beings, has inalienable rights.  It is the master that is not prepared for emancipation, and it is the parent that is not prepared to give up punishment.

I can’t help wishing my own parents and countless others had heard of Lucretia’s wisdom.  What is to become of  the good nature, the spirit, of today’s child?  Parents need the courage of Lucretia Mott to stop penalties and allow that goodness to grow and bare the fruits of happiness and confidence.

Mott did not, of course, advocate giving children no guidance.  One suspects that before the child hid at bedtime and came on her own to ask forgiveness, there had been many a life lesson discussed and gently applied.

In my book Gideon’s River, a mother finds the courage to shift toward non-resistance.

(Quotes taken from The Way We Lived: Essays and Documents in American Social History, Volume I: 1607-1877)

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